Strength & Conditioning Tips for Distance RunnersFebruary 28, 2020 | by Charles Smith
With spring and summer races quickly approaching, recreational and competitive runners alike are crawling out of hibernation and beginning the annual journey back to race pace, personal bests, and new distance records.
If you’re anything like myself, the first few weeks getting back to (real) running are hard… like disproportionately hard.
While nothing can replace the long, hard miles that need to be run, a smart, comprehensive and progressive strength training program tailored for you, a runner (!), can get you back to feeling light, fast, and resilient much quicker than pavement pounding alone.
But with all of the contradicting “exercise for runners” tips out there, where do you even begin?
Being a runner who has felt fast, slow, strong, weak, heavy, light and everything in between, as well as being a coach who has helped dozens of clients reach their maximum running potentials, I’m happy to offer up a few of my top strength and conditioning tips to help you point your compass in the right direction.
Tip #1: You’re stronger than you think
In my seven years as a strength and conditioning coach, truly the most baffling thing I run into is the endurance athlete who knows their body is capable of withstanding 3x their body weight in ground reaction forces with every running step, but is too fragile to pick up a dumbbell, barbell or piece of resistance training equipment that isn’t a Theraband.
The continued preaching by misinformed “elite” running groups that resistance training will make you slower has literally, and figuratively, hurt the progress of both recreational and competitive runners for decades.
As a runner, you are crazy strong. Your ability to propel yourself across miles and miles of undulating terrain without ever having two feet on the ground is absolutely remarkable.
Under the guidance of a strength and conditioning coach, implementing appropriate resistance training protocols will only amplify the physical feats that you are already capable of. Getting stronger = being faster, more resilient and more efficient.
With that being said, a few general recommendations include:
- Add in strength training 2-3x/week.
- Each strength workout should be comprised of full body exercises emphasizing movement patterns, not muscle groups. The fundamental movement patterns that should be included in each strength training week are some variation of the squat, hinge, lunge, upper body push, upper body pull, and rotation.
- Each exercise should be performed for 2-3 sets of 6-10 repetitions. Choose a weight/resistance/load that is difficult but not impossible to finish all of the prescribed repetitions.
- Start with a baseline movement screen from a strength and conditioning coach, physiotherapist, kinesiologist, or other related profession. This is highly recommended in order to best guide your training program, attack your weaknesses and improve upon your strengths.
Key Takeaway: You’re strong, act like it.
NOTE: Before starting a strength and conditioning program, ensure that you are medically cleared by a health professional.
Tip #2: Learn how to sprint (and jump)
You’re probably wondering: What on Earth does jumping high have to do with running?
Throughout my running and coaching tenures, I’ve found that the best (fastest at any distance) runners are the most explosive.
Now, let’s be serious, Eliud Kipchoge doesn’t stand a chance in a head to head vertical jump contest with Lebron James, but I’m willing to bet anything that the average jump heights and sprint times of the average 2:30:00 marathon runner are significantly better than the average 3:30:00 marathon runner… and that’s not coincidence.
Why? Power (for simplicity’s sake, the ability to move explosively) has all sorts of awesome carry over effects to the long duration, relatively slow pace qualities of long distance running.
1. RANGE OF MOTION
Sprinting and jumping take the hip, knee, ankle, and shoulder through much larger ranges of motion than distance running. Greater ranges of motion, and especially greater USABLE ranges of motion, can have a potential stride length carry over to your distance running pattern.
In this case, sprinting and jumping is actually a form of what I’d call functional mobility training. With relatively large joint angles produced in these powerful movements, we’re essentially telling our bodies that it’s safe to play with bigger ranges of hip flexion/extension, ankle dorsi/plantarflexion, and shoulder flexion/extension- all of which lead to faster running.
Running is inherently plyometric (it utilizes our muscles’ elastic nature to produce large forces in small amounts of time). Introducing sprinting, jumping, hopping and bounding into your training protocol forces your muscles to become more elastic.
Increased elasticity means less time spent on the ground (less stress on soft tissue and bones) as well as increased efficiency. In short, we no longer have to push and pull ourselves off the ground; we just bounce!
Third and finally, power is shown to significantly decrease in aging populations who don’t use it on a regular basis. The inability to jump high or sprint fast at age 30 can turn into an inability to get out of a chair at age 75 really quickly.
Speed and power are a key aspect of high performance running as well as graceful aging.
My general advice for implementing sprints and jumps into your training protocol includes:
- Low volume is best. Every repetition should be performed with maximum intent. Please (I repeat, please!) do not confuse power training with conditioning or “cardio”.
- Sprint 5-7 days/week: 2-3 sprints of 10-40 yards is sufficient
- Jump 2-3 days/week: 1-3 sets of 3-6 jumps is best. Try jumping for height, distance and even mix in some rotations if you feel comfortable.
Key takeaway: Embrace your “springiness”.
Tip #3: Take care of your body (Warm-Up)
When a runner comes in with pain, one of the first things I ask is do they warm up before they run. The typical response: “I usually start a little slower than usual”.
This might be a profound statement for the running community, but running doesn’t qualify as a proper warm-up for running.
At Fortius, before any sort of training program, we utilize our own variation of the RAMP protocol to get our athletes prepared for their session:
Raise: body temperature, synovial fluid (joint lubrication), arousal state, etc.
Activate: prep tissues that will be utilized during the session.
Mobilize: dynamic stretches aimed at movements and tissues that will be stressed.
Potentiate: optimize mind-muscle connection in order to maximize performance.
A running specific warm-up for one of my athletes generally looks something like:
- Marching/Skipping Progressions
- High Knees, Butt Kickers, Carioca
- Plank, Side Plank, Glute Bridges
- Mini-Band Lateral Shuffle
- Tall Plank Shoulder Taps
- Dynamic stretching through calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and shoulders
- Sprint 2×10 yards
An effective warm-up leads to increased performance, decreased risk of injury, and can serve as a daily self-assessment of how your body is feeling and reacting to training.
Key Takeaway: For the love all things good in this world, please warm-up.
Trust me, I get it; if you’re an endurance athlete, you’re probably not naturally predisposed to loving strength training or the gym in general.
I was the same… until I wasn’t.
I began strength training with a purpose in 2012 and can distinctly remember my first long run after becoming objectively (ok relatively) strong. I felt fast. I felt light. I felt springy. I felt like I could go forever.
And, maybe most importantly, I didn’t hurt.
If you’re at all like me, a runner just trying to get faster, give these tips a try and see what happens. If you’re brand new to the gym, consider booking some strength & conditioning sessions with a coach at Fortius to help build a training program individualized to your running goals.